Frontier Data Study: Releasing the power of digital data for development

Bojan Božović
Frontier Tech Hub
Published in
4 min readOct 12, 2020


What are the most frontier applications of new data sources in international development? How can Frontier Data sources help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in the developing world? Which data-driven technologies can be harnessed now, and which ones are not quite ready? How can frontline development practitioners harness emerging data sources efficiently and safely?

Links: Full report; User guide on Machine Learning and Data Mining; User guide on Earth Observation; User guide on Passive Location Data from Mobile Phones

Data-driven technologies have enormous potential to support the work of UK Aid. We know this because, last year, the FT Hub commissioned a DFID-wide staff survey that highlighted big data analysis and applications as holding the greatest potential of any frontier technology to impact its work.

The top ten technologies for development, according to a 2019 DFID staff survey

Yet, data can also be a challenging and intimidating area to work in. At the same time as our survey, we launched our fourth Call for Frontier Tech pilots and received more proposals in the data space than for any other technology. However, many applications failed to grasp key concepts around data and adequately account for the numerous factors that need to be considered in its application. DFID / FCDO staff clearly wanted to engage with data-driven tech more in their work, and they needed help.

DFID / FCDO staff clearly wanted to engage with data-driven tech more in their work, and they needed help.

Seeing a real opportunity for this technology to further advance the mission of the department, a desire from the organisation to understand how to harness frontier data sources, and need to make data-driven technologies more accessible to frontline development practitioners, the FT Hub commissioned the NIRAS Digital Futures Hub to lead on the Frontier data study: Releasing the power of digital data for development.

The aim of this report is straightforward: inspire development practitioners to engage with the newest data-driven technologies and then instruct them on how to harness these intelligently, efficiently, and safely.

Data mining and AI can deliver a range of benefits in international development, according to our study

Our approach

The report set out to scan the new landscape of emerging data sources, highlight key data-driven technologies that could be harnessed now, and provide guidance and tools for non-data specialists in international development on how to use data-driven technologies the right way. This would be the best way to empower practitioners to tackle the most pressing development challenges.

To drive out the key insights, the team conducted a comprehensive literature review, undertook a global survey of the “who’s who” in the data space, ran workshops with DFID frontline staff, and collaborated closely with expert working groups inside and outside of DFID to help us understand where the opportunities were and how practitioners could exploit them.

The report highlights earth observation data as holding strong potential for development impact

What we learned

We learned there is justifiable excitement in the frontier data sources, but in many cases combining cutting-edge sources with traditional data sources may yield the optimal approach. In some cases, improvements to access traditional data sources would prove a wiser approach altogether! We also discovered that, rather than depending on data experts for the design and delivery of data-related interventions, decision making should be devolved to frontline staff who can call on a range of tools and expertise to to aid them where needed.

Technologies with the biggest potential for exploitation now

The report also honed in on three technology areas it identified as holding the most potential now: data mining and machine learning, passive location data from mobile phones, and earth observation. Each user guide tackled the following questions:

  • What is the technology?
  • What can it be used for?
  • How can the technology help with the leaving no-one behind agenda?
  • Where can one learn more about what the technology can be used for?
  • What are the most important issues to consider?
  • What are the ethical challenges involved in using the technology?
  • What are some case studies of the newest applications of the technology?

There’s even more in the report!

More detail and information and, yes, answers to all of the above questions (and more!) can be found in the report package:

If you’re interested in our work harnessing data to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, please see our COVIDaction Medium page and Twitter account. More information on the work of our Frontier Tech pilot portfolio is available on our Livestreaming page.



Bojan Božović
Frontier Tech Hub

Promoting innovation and private sector growth in international development; Project Manager of Frontier Technology Livestreaming. Views are my own.